"I think she's the fuck of the century."
Michael Douglas stars as San Francisco homicide detective Nick Curran, the type of cocky asshole the actor specialized in throughout the '80s and '90s. A (supposedly) recently sober boozehound with a coke problem and anger management issues who's still on the outs with Internal Affairs over shooting some tourists (Whoopsies!), Curran is assigned the grisly murder of a retired rock star icepicked to death during the throws of sexual orgasm. "He got off while he got off", Eszterhas has one of the other detectives insightfully explain. The investigation leads to the rocker's girlfriend, a blonde sexpot and seemingly amoral authoress whose last book was about a woman who icepicks a retired rock star to death during sex. Hmmm, what a coincidence. To top it off, Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone) has a fondness for playing mind games with cops, and practically dares Nick to find her guilty of something, anything at all, which he would gladly do if only there were any evidence. In the meantime, even though he's certain Tramell is the murderer, Nick decides to let her screw with him all she wants, in both the mental and physical senses. The two knock boots all over the place, the threat of his own possible death bringing a special thrill to their torrid affair.
Since Eszterhas is fundamentally a sexist jerkoff, the Basic Instinct screenplay takes a dim view of the female gender, all of whom are depicted at a minimum as deceitful whores if not outright evil murderous bitches. In another director's hands, the film's misogyny would be unbearable, but Verhoeven embraces the movie's own basest instincts and turns them on their ear. In his view, Tramell is the hero of the story, using her omnivorous sexuality as a weapon against a male-dominated world. She plays the traditional male role of aggressor, making Curran her bitch. She's smarter than any man in the movie, and proves worthy of earning her own sort of happy ending, even if that means getting away with murder.
To that end, the plot's mystery is basically irrelevant and the mechanics of getting to its conclusion patently absurd. Apparently, in Eszterhas' bizarre alternate universe, there are no such things as fingerprints or DNA, because if there were this case would be closed within the first 10 minutes. What police department would let people this screwed up lead investigations that they blatantly have conflicts of interest with? Fortunately, Verhoeven recognizes that logic or common sense have no place in this story. The director has fun winding his way through a series of red herrings involving Tramell's lesbian girlfriend (the sizzling Leilani Sarelle), as well as Nick's own former girlfriend, who just happens to be the police psychologist tasked with profiling the villain (Jeanne Tripplehorn, tramped up in big glasses, an inappropriately short business skirt, and fishnet stockings like something out of a porno), but in the end the identity of the killer doesn't even matter, a point hammered home in the fake-out ending. Right from the opening scene, we all know what really happened, and everything leading up to that revelation is just smoke and mirrors. Basic Instinct isn't a mystery at all; it's a sexually charged fever dream, pure style over substance.
And what a glorious, gaudy dream it is. The movie is entirely ridiculous but insanely entertaining. Playing up the San Francisco locations, Verhoeven directs the picture like Hitchcock on steroids, turning it into a cross between Vertigo, gritty '70s cop thrillers, and lurid Cinemax After Dark softcore porn, envisioned through his own distinctly European outsider's view of American culture. The men are all chauvinist pigs and the women monstrous whores. The movie's visuals and rhythms are sleek and seductive. Its dialogue, never the type that real human beings might speak, revels in its artificiality. Sharon Stone delivers a true star-making performance, vamping it up as the brilliant, soulless Tramell and fearlessly jumping into the steamy, no-holds-barred sex scenes that Verhoeven stages with animalistic passion. Basic Instinct is scorching hot, totally preposterous, and entertaining as hell. If ever there were a masterpiece made from the detritus of America's pop art wasteland, this is it.
The HD DVD:
Although the packaging lacks any explicit reference to the fact, the HD DVD (like the Blu-ray) contains the Director's Cut of the film, which adds a smidge of extra gore and smutty sex action (including that notorious close-up of Sharon Stone's vagina) in comparison to the R-rated American theatrical cut.
European HD DVDs are not region-coded and will function in an American HD DVD player. The disc opens with a selection of menu languages to choose from: French, English, German, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish, or Dutch. The menu language selected will unlock audio and subtitle options that can only be accessed from that specific menu. Once you've chosen, your HD DVD player should store this information in its persistent memory, so the next time you load the disc it will remember your preferred menu without prompting. The language can still be changed if you desire, simply by selecting the arrow at the bottom of the menu page.
HD DVD discs are only playable in a compatible HD DVD player. They will not function in a standard DVD player (unless the disc is a Combo release that specifically includes a secondary DVD version) or in a Blu-Ray player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
As I wrote in my Blu-ray review for the movie, Basic Instinct has had a pretty checkered history on home video. The movie has very stylish photography but previous laserdisc and DVD editions ranged from downright awful to barely mediocre. The Blu-ray continues that tradition, with a soft and dull picture that's been heavily filtered and is lacking in detail or depth. The HD DVD, though still not perfect, is a welcome improvement in this regard.
The diagonal lines over the opening titles exhibit jaggies on both discs, leading me to believe that this artifact is endemic to the sequence itself. In bright daylight scenes, the HD DVD's picture is noticeably sharper and less filtered than the Blu-ray's, with much better detail in wide shots. Colors look good and flesh tones have less of an orange cast. Some of the murkier nighttime and interior scenes still don't look great, and overall I wouldn't say that this is a huge leap forward in quality, but it's better enough that I consistently preferred the HD DVD.
The Basic Instinct HD DVD is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over an HD DVD player's analog Component Video outputs.
The photo images used in this article were taken from the DVD edition for illustrative purposes only, and are not intended to demonstrate HD DVD picture quality.
Studio Canal has been hit or miss with the audio quality of their HD DVDs, and I'm saddened to report that Basic Instinct suffers the same high pitch problem that affects titles such as The Elephant Man and Mulholland Drive (yet does not affect other Studio Canal releases such as Terminator 2 or Brotherhood of the Wolf). Even though the disc is encoded at 1080p24 and runs at the proper theatrical playback speed, the pitch has the characteristic sound of PAL speedup. Whether Studio Canal used a PAL audio master and time-stretched it to fit the new video encode, or perhaps deliberately raised the pitch, expecting that their European audience would be so used to PAL audio that they'd think something were wrong otherwise, is still unknown.
As with PAL DVDs, the pitch increase is more noticeable on some discs than others. Unfortunately, Basic Instinct has it really bad, perhaps the worst I've ever heard. All of the actors sound like they huffed helium before reading their lines. This is a travesty, and completely undercuts any other positive merits the disc may have.
Subs & Dubs:
Your choice of main menu language will limit the audio and subtitle options you can select.